Real Food Encyclopedia | Pumpkins
When you hear the word pumpkin, you probably think of jack-o-lanterns and large orange globes scattered in a pumpkin patch in fall. Confusingly, there are two main species that have varieties that are referred to as “pumpkin,” both in the Cucurbitaceae (gourd) family: Curcurbita pepo and Curcurbita maxima. C. pepo cultivars are mostly known to us as “summer squash” and include zucchini, yellow squash and all the other wonderful varieties of tender-skinned squash ubiquitous in the summertime. But, the orange (or sometimes white) pumpkins we use to carve into jack-o-lanterns on Halloween are also C.pepo, even though they more closely resemble winter squash in that their rind is (generally) not edible. C. maxima varietals are commonly known as winter squash, but some varietals are frequently called “pumpkins,” too, such as the Queensland Blue and all of the super large pumpkins grown for competitions. People coming from the British Isles (or former colonies) are likely to call all winter squash “pumpkins,” further confusing the matter.
And just to make the botanical naming conventions even more puzzling, C. moschata, which includes butternut squash, also includes cultivars called “pumpkins,” such as the heirloom Long Island Cheese pumpkin and the coolest pumpkin ever — the Naples Long pumpkin.
The bottom line: all of these varieties are botanically very similar to one another, and in reality, a great many of these “pumpkins” (and even some winter squash) taste similar to one another, too. In addition, all of them have similar growing habits. They trail on super long vines, with large-ish yellow to yellow-orange flowers. Only the leaves vary in shape.
Fun Facts about Pumpkins:
- Top pumpkin growing states are Illinois, California and New York. Apparently, 90 percent of all pumpkins grown in the US are grown in the vicinity of Peoria, Illinois.
- Botanically, pumpkins are technically a fruit, not a vegetable.
- Should you decide to grow your own giant pumpkin, there is an online giant pumpkin growing community that will support you every step of the way.
What to Look for When Buying Pumpkins
Pumpkins vary tremendously in size in shape. The sugar pumpkin is a smaller version of the larger pumpkin varieties we use to carve into jack-o-lanterns; they have orange rinds and make great purées for baked goods. There are other varieties, like the New England Pie, that are also commonly used for purées and in desserts like pumpkin pie.
If you plan to cook with your pumpkin, choose pumpkins that feel heavy for their weight, indicating denser flesh. Pass on pumpkins with black or mushy spots. Even one small black spot can quickly take over the entire fruit.
Sustainability of Pumpkins
With pumpkins, a major issue is food waste. So many pumpkins end up in the landfill post-Halloween. Consider purchasing an edible pumpkin variety (like a sugar pumpkin) and painting it with non-toxic, washable paint instead, then wash the paint off and eat the pumpkin! Some municipalities, local gardens and farms have fun pumpkin smashes post-Halloween to help households make composting their holiday pumpkins more fun.
Winter squash shows up at number 25 on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides on Produce, so if you’re concerned about pesticides on your pumpkins, talk to your local grower about his/her growing practices and choose organic when you can.
As you might guess, in most places, pumpkins are in season starting in the early fall, and if properly cured, can be stored for months.
Most pumpkins can be stored for a long time in cool, dry conditions — up to a month or longer. Check out Leda Meredith’s tip for long-term storage of pumpkins and winter squash (up to three months): she outlines how to “oil-buff” to reduce the chance of rot.
Cooking with Pumpkins
Most of us probably think of pumpkins primarily as an ingredient in desserts (or maybe pumpkin spice lattes). Of course, there is the ubiquitous pumpkin pie, a one-crust delicacy traditionally made by pureeing the flesh of pie-type pumpkins and mixing with eggs, cream and what has now become known as “pumpkin pie spice” (usually a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and sometimes allspice), and the millions of variations the classic Thanksgiving pie has spawned. There are also tons of recipes out there for pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin cheesecake and pumpkin whoopie pies.
But pumpkins should not be relegated to sweet treats; they are also delicious in savory dishes. Northern Italians are fond of stuffing tortellini, ravioli and other stuffed pasta with pumpkin purée (zucca in Italian). Pumpkin is also a common ingredient in many Asian cuisines, both sweet and savory. Pumpkin is used in Thai curries, especially vegetarian versions. (Here’s a recipe roundup of a bunch of Asian-style pumpkin recipes.) Savory pumpkin recipes also appear in Spanish cuisine; check out Janet Mendel’s blog post for a duo of sweet and savory pumpkin dishes.
But wait, there’s more! Pumpkin seeds (pepitas) are delicious and nutritious, as is the oil that is pressed from them. Here are tips on roasting your own pepitas. As Mexican food expert Rick Bayless tells us in his Mexican Kitchen cookbook, seed-thickened sauces have been common in Mexico since pre-Columbian times. Indeed, there are said to be seven classic moles in Oaxaca, including pipián verde (aka mole pipián, aka mole verde), pumpkin seed mole. Many of the other types of moles also call for toasted pumpkin seeds as thickeners. Pumpkin seeds make delicious, healthy snacks and additions to mixtures like granola or trail mix. They also can be turned into a seriously delightful brittle. Try drizzling pumpkin seed oil (with a light hand: it’s expensive and also quite strong) on desserts, especially on vanilla ice cream. Top with salted pepitas and you have a super easy and elegant dessert.
Check out Janet Mendel’s Spanish enticing pumpkin jam (her book, “My Kitchen in Spain”, is a treasure trove of pumpkin and other delicious Spanish recipes). It keeps for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. Forager Leda Meredith also has several other preservation methods for pumpkin and winter squash, including detailed instructions on how to freeze, dehydrate and can pumpkin and winter squash.
Pumpkins are positively loaded with Vitamin A. One cup of cooked pumpkin has a whopping 245 percent of your daily needs. Pumpkin is also high in dietary fiber, Vitamin C and potassium. It even has decent amounts of iron, calcium and protein. Pumpkin seeds (aka pepitas) are super high in iron, manganese and a number of other key minerals; they also contain large amounts of Vitamin K and protein.